Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Although most of us have a healthy respect for significant incidents, we may dismiss what we see as trifles too quickly. The great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes didn't make such a mistake. Indeed, as he reminded his friend and colleague, Dr. John Watson, “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”
Holmes even gives Watson an example of the importance of so-called trifles: “I dare call nothing trivial when I reflect that some of my most classic cases have had the least promising commencement. You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth [to] which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.”
Unfortunately, we know no other details of the adventure to which Holmes refers, for it was not one about which he or Watson wrote. Nevertheless, we can assume it constituted a “singularity,” a unique fact or feature, something that stands out because it doesn't fit or add up and which turns out, in his experience, to be “almost invariably a clue.”
Although no writer should ever imagine the matter of metaphors to be a mere “trifle,” some, no doubt, do. Having forgotten the difficulty they experienced in mastering this basic, but most eloquent, figure of speech (or imagining that they have mastered it), some authors seldom revisit it and cease to practice the art of its creation. As a result, they are likely to write less well than they otherwise could—and should—write. Had Claude Monet, in having first mixed red and yellow, obtaining orange, concluded no other shades and hues of the color could be produced that were worth his time and effort, he might never have painted San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight. Great writers, like any other type of artist, much practice every technique to perfect it.
While great writers' work provide many examples worthy of emulation, other sources of inspiration are also useful, especially to the apprentice or aspiring author. For writers of horror fiction, for example, posters created to publicize horror movies offer quick studies of astute uses of metaphor to advertise, or “sell,” these products. If copywriters, painters, and photographers can sell a film, partially through their use of metaphors, an author of horror stories should be able to “sell” a phrase, a sentence, a scene, or, in some cases, even an entire story through his or her adroit use of appropriate and emotionally powerful metaphors.
The metaphor, we know, is a figure of speech that compares two things (or abstractions, such as thoughts or feelings) that are not alike. A metaphor may be thought of as an equation. One variable, “A,” is said to be equal to another variable, “B”:
E = MC2
wherein, “E” is energy, “M” is mass, and “C” is the speed of light times itself
We can turn an equation around, writing, for example—
MC2 = E
Often, a metaphor makes readers aware of a quality that they might otherwise fail to notice:
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.
World = stage
Men and women = players
Exits = deaths
Entrances = births
Often, we make metaphors by stating them directly, as William Shakespeare does in the above quotation (“the world's a stage”).
However, we can create a metaphor indirectly, by speaking (or writing) of an object in relation to one (or more) of its parts. Consider this poster for the movie Teeth:
We see a young woman lying supine in a bathtub of soapy water. Only her head appears above the water's surface. The featureless white wall above her head does not distract us with color, patterned wallpaper, paneling, or anything else. The water is also featureless, and the layer of soap lying upon its surface makes it seem one with the tub and the wall. Our gaze remains on her face; we are encouraged, in effect, to consider her, to study her. We see that she is young and beautiful. Her skin is flawless, her cheeks rosy, her lips full and red. She looks at us directly, without fear or shame.
As our gaze wanders down the poster, we see, beneath the dark water, rising bubbles and a single red rose which seems to float at about the position the young woman's genitals would be, were they visible to us. The metaphor is unstated, but suggested: her vagina = a rose. The image of the rose recalls the flower's qualities: delicacy, beauty, fragrance. We might also associate the rose with romantic love, for the flower is traditionally a symbol of erotic passion.
Beneath the flower, we encounter a single word, in the capital letters of a serif font: “Teeth.” The word's blood red color is reminiscent both of the rose above it and of the young woman's vagina, which it represents. The vagina is bloody during the moment of deflowering and throughout each menstrual cycle. This rose-vagina, or vagina-rose, becomes more and more complex, as layers of meanings unfold themselves, much in the manner of a budding rose.
This seemingly simple poster has more to offer: the smaller text, also in the capital letters of a serif font, but white, not red: “EVERY ROSE HAS ITS THORNS.” White is often a symbol of purity, or innocence, of virginity. If the young woman is a virgin, transforming her from a state of purity and innocence into a woman of knowledge—and of carnal knowledge, at that—and experience, through sexual intercourse, is apt to result in violence, injury, and, perhaps, death, not to her, but to the man who so transforms her. This young maiden is no passive and acquiescent Galatea, but a vengeful Fury. Such seems to be the warning conveyed by the poster's reference to a vagina with teeth, the legendary vagina dentata.
The front cover of a DVD made for the Spanish-speaking segment of the market bears the same imagery as the movie poster for its English-language counterpart (described above), except, instead of the title Teeth, the Spanish version is called Vagina Dentata, and, in case the front cover's message isn't clear enough, text on the Spanish edition's back cover spells out the meaning of the front cover's iconography:
[Vagina Dentata] es la historia un brusco desperta sexual como nunca se ha visto antes . . . Como nuestra protagonista pasa de liderar un grupo de castidad a experimentar sus primeras experencias sexuales de manera traumatica . . . un extrano habita en su cuerpo. Adivine que pasa cuando Dawn O'Keefe descrubre una dentadura en el lugar mas espantoso que usted puedo imaginar . . . Cuidado las chicas buenas pueden morder.
(English translation): [Teeth] is the story of a sudden sexual awakening unlike any ever seen before. . . As our protagonist goes from leading a chastity group to experiencing her first traumatic sexual experiences. . . a stranger lives in her body. Guess what happens when Dawn O'Keefe uncovers a set of teeth in the most frightening place you can imnagine. Beware: good girls can bite.
It may seem that we've gotten away from the original topic of our essay, but we haven't. The text on the back of the Spanish-language version of Teeth merely spells out the consequences, according to the movie's treatment of the topic represented by the double metaphor, “rose = vagina; thorns = teeth”: a young woman's first sexual experiences are traumatic; she responds by murdering her partners, using her vagina's teeth to effect bloody vengeance. For her victims (and for male members of the audience—yes, pun intended—the location of the young woman's second set of teeth is “the most frightening place” they can envision.) The effects presented by the movie are made possible by, if not contained within, the double metaphor.
One can create a metaphor directly, as Shakespeare does with his “all the world's a stage” trope, but a metaphor can also be created indirectly, by associating the qualities of one term (“A”) with the other term, “B,” with which it is linked by comparison. As we have seen, a well-conceived metaphor can accomplish a lot more than simply making us see something in a new light; it can become a vehicle for an entire movie's basic situation. In the case of Teeth, the screenwriters (and the poster's creators) have taken a leaf from Edgar Allan Poe, whose narrator, at the opening to his story “Berenice,” speaks of his having “derived from beauty . . [not only] a type of unloveliness,” but also a situation ripe with horror.
Note: For those who are inclinded toward psychoanalytical, or Freudian, interpretations of literature (as a rule, I am not), Teeth might also be seen as symbolic of the so-called castration complex and as rife with all sorts of unconscious significance.